Series sweep of Penn State puts Michigan on Big Ten title path

Saturday, April 30, 2016 - 9:47pm

With just six games left in the conference season, the No. 2 Michigan softball team (18-2 Big Ten, 41-4 overall) knew how much was on the line against Penn State (13-7, 29-20), the third-ranked team in the Big Ten coming into the weekend series.

Playing on the road at University Park, where the Nittany Lions had won 10 out of 13 games at home, the Wolverines entered enemy territory fully knowing the challenge they would face.

Combining a dominant performance with a fearless attitude, Michigan stood up to the test, overpowering Penn State in the circle and at the plate to walk away with a series sweep.

Pitching on back-to-back days after a poor weather forecast for Sunday turned Saturday into a doubleheader, junior right-hander Megan Betsa put together two commanding outings. Starting the series opener Friday, Betsa matched her career best of 16 strikeouts, including a stretch from the fourth through sixth innings where she struck out nine straight batters.

With the game still tied at one run apiece in the top of the seventh, the Wolverines’ offense stepped up to give Betsa the lead. Senior center fielder Sierra Lawrence unleashed a two-run home run deep over the left-field wall to break the deadlock and give her team a 3-1 lead.

“I was up there just trying to forget about my last at-bat and have fun knowing that that at-bat was not going to be the end of the world,” Lawrence said. “I think that gave me that little extra edge.”

Betsa ran into a bit of trouble in the seventh as she attempted to close out the close contest when a hit-by-pitch, single and walk put her in a bases-loaded jam with only one out. But she cleaned up the mess herself, fielding a groundout to the circle and inducing a five-pitch strikeout to give Michigan a 4-2 victory.

“(It) was a great game to win for us, said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “It was tight all the way to the seventh and Megan Betsa was outstanding. She gave us a chance to win. She was just on her game.”

In between Betsa’s starts, fifth-year senior right-hander Sara Driesenga put together an impressive performance of her own in the first game of the twinbill. She pitched a three-hit, complete-game shutout in five innings, as the Wolverines’ offense had no trouble finding a spark Saturday.

“Our pregame message from Hutch was really essential,” Lawrence said. “She basically told us not to try to be so perfect and to just go out there and hit the ball hard and have fun, and I think that really helped us today.”

Lighting up the scoreboard, Michigan posted 25 runs in the doubleheader to earn 12-0 and 13-3 wins, respectively. The Wolverines scored in every inning of both five-inning, run-rule victories, including five-spots in the fifth inning of game one and the third inning of game two.

The first game featured two grand slams courtesy of two catchers, sophomore Aidan Falk and freshman Katie Alexander, that bookended the game. Falk opened the scoring with a blast to right field in the first inning, and Alexander — serving as a pinch-hitter — finished it with a bomb to left in the fifth.

Michigan continued its strong performance at the plate in the second game of the doubleheader, which featured a season-high 16 hits, including five for extra bases. Lawrence finished her weekend much like she started it, hitting 5-for-5 with six runs and three RBI on the day. And in her return to the circle, Betsa mowed down the Nittany Lions to secure the series sweep, allowing just two earned runs late in the game.

“We realize that we don’t know how much time we have left, so we’re just really enjoying each other,” Hutchins said. “It’s a really good ball club. As long as they can trust their game and enjoy their process, I think a lot of good things can happen.”

Now, with just three games left in the conference season, one of those good things may be bound to happen, as the Wolverines have put themselves in prime position to claim their ninth-straight Big Ten title.